Double Consciousness and the Future of Service-Learning

Gabrielle Hickmon
Cornell University

Twenty years ago, Zlotkowski’s (1995) article “Does Service-Learning Have a Future?” called the field to attend seriously to the academic aspects of service-learning, to situate the pedagogy strongly within the academy as a means of legitimizing and expanding the work. Today, I believe that for service-learning to not only have a future but to have a future that truly includes all students we have to attend to the ways demographic shifts at the collegiate level have changed the dynamics of the classroom — changed, specifically in the case of service-learning, who is “served” and who is “serving.” Service-learning has largely established itself within the academy. We must now do the hard work of ensuring that all students have access to and a positive experience with it. I focus here on improving the nature of experiences across demographic groups. This begins by questioning what service-learning experiences look like across identity groups and working to ensure the pedagogy truly becomes a space dedicated to social justice, community, and equality — values it has championed since its inception.

As a Black, female, second-generation college student who is the first in her family to attend an Ivy League institution, I personally wonder if the scholarship about service-learning and higher education was written with myself and students like me in mind — much less by students like me. This is why I feel blessed to be a senior at Cornell University who has participated in three service-learning programs and facilitated two and who now contributes my own scholarship and leadership to the field. Even though I have had mostly positive experiences with service-learning, I cannot help but wonder if others like me have. From 1999-2012, college attendance rose by 58% among Hispanics/Latinos, 30% among African Americans, and 16% among Whites (Lieberman, 2015). A “New American College” has indeed emerged, just maybe not in the way Boyer (1994, as discussed in Zlotkowski, 1995), who coined this phrase, or anyone else thought it would. Higher percentages of underrepresented students enrolled in colleges and universities today means that to have a future — because the student population will only continue to diversify — service-learning needs to consider once again what is involved in addressing the needs of “today’s students, in today’s economy, in today’s society” (Zlotkowski, 1995, p. 14).

Participating in service-learning programs at Cornell has enriched my college experience and taught me in a very real way that the world is bigger than my own backyard. It is one thing to learn about the history of other communities. It is a game changer to actually engage with them in a way that, when done correctly, leaves all parties wiser, more interculturally competent, and more aware of their shared humanity than they were prior to a connection being made. I have seen the world through service-learning. I have traveled to places I am not sure I would have otherwise been able to go to on my own. The exposure to new places, people, and ideas, in a way that links theory and practice, encourages active learning, and creates opportunities for the development of leadership, communication, critical thinking, and cross-cultural understanding is what service-learning is all about (Mitchell, Donahue, & Young-Law, 2012). My experiences with service-learning have been a central part of my Cornell experience and have helped shape me into a successful college student who feels prepared for life post “ivory tower.”

But, as a Black woman dedicated to community-engaged work, I have often felt a double-consciousness of sorts. I have not always known how to manage the power and privilege that inherently come with being in a position to be of service to others. I have not always known how to handle the assumptions that are made about my connections to the communities I engage with, especially when those communities are full of people who look like me. I have been conflicted about doing the “serving” when there are members of my community who remain “those served” in the minds of some in the field of service-learning, despite their real contributions to their communities and the field’s supposed belief that “all serve and are served” (Sigmon, 1979, p. 4). I, as Du Bois (1903) wrote, ever feel my “two-ness.” I am “serving” but I am traditionally thought to be the “served” due to my status as both woman and Black. I am a student at any Ivy League institution, but having been told “You got into Cornell because you can code switch” and “You only got into Cornell because of affirmative action” by professors and peers alike has led me to spend many days wondering if I truly deserved to get that admissions letter in the mail or if I just happened to get lucky. I look at myself through two sets of eyes: those in my classroom and those at home in my community. I wonder and worry about what both sets think of me. I question if my community will want anything that I have to offer, while also challenging myself to use the blessings and privileges that come with a Cornell education to uplift my people, community, and ideals. I wonder if #BlackLivesMatter [1] indeed, because I know that people like me, people who could be me, are being killed in the streets, in their homes, even in jails, due to their status as Black — and I know that my Cornell degree cannot protect me from that. Even with an Ivy League degree, I am still a Black female who consequently is made of “two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois, 1903, p. 8).

Yes, I have taken courses about participatory action research and the ethics of community engagement. I have read countless foundational texts and ideas from thought leaders in this work. But I have also had to struggle through how to manage my subject position in my classes because so often I am the only person who looks like me in the room. So often I am spotlighted, asked to speak to and represent “the” experience of people who look like me even though my experience is probably in all actuality not indicative of the struggles faced by anyone else, within or beyond my gender, ethnicity, or home community.

This is problematic because life experience, including experience in a service-learning program, differs across identities. In Service Learning as a Pedagogy of Whiteness, Mitchell and her co-authors (2012) discuss the idea of “border-crossing” — exposure to new places, people, ways of life, and ideas — for service-learning participants. Well, a border looks different for an African American high-income student than for a White low-income student and for an Asian American first-generation student because they belong to different home communities and have experienced different cultures, ideas, and norms over the course of their lives. If one of the goals of service-learning is exposure to new ideas or ways of life through border-crossing, then service-learning projects have to be created and framed based on the particular experiences of the border-crosser (Mitchell, Donahue, Young-Law, 2012). If educational institutions are indeed “central places where race is made and remade everyday,” (Lewis, 2003, p. 11) then practitioners and practitioner-scholars, if committed to the supposed values of service-learning, need to make it okay for students of color to be their full selves in a way that lends itself to true dialogue about how identity informs experience. All students need to be invited and enabled to be “brave” — to give up the illusion of “safety” for a “learning that involves not merely risk, but the pain of giving up a former condition in favor of a new way of seeing things” (Arao & Clemens, 2013, p. 141). If the field as a whole — colleges/universities at an institutional level, instructors, program facilitators, community partners, student leaders, and student participants — can make a concerted effort to understand that service and learning happen at different junctures for everyone involved based upon their subject position (Green, 2003) then more nuance can be brought to the work, which should in the process improve experiences across demographic markers.

In order for us to move in this direction, I offer the following suggestions. In order to facilitate learning and conversation across difference in ways that all participants can be comfortable with and learn from, everyone involved with the service-learning project should work to build trust — in the classroom and in the community. Participants who have connected on a human level are more likely to be comfortable discussing race, class, gender, and how these and other facets of their identities interact in the context of service-learning and in their life experiences in general. Discussions about identity and various “-isms” that interact with identities should be built into the project or course, not be an add on or be neglected until and unless a conflict arises. Weaving these topics into discussions should lead to not only less “spotlighting” of students whose demographics suggest they might identify with a particular form of oppression but also a higher level of comfort discussing them among those who may have less direct experience with it. It is also important that the privilege that, in our society, comes from being white, male, and middle or upper class is acknowledged, discussed, and questioned in order to cultivate a pedagogy of diversity.

Race, class, gender, and all other “-isms” should be contextualized both in and out of the classroom. It is one thing to read about the Civil Rights movement or feminist pedagogy, but it is another to begin to understand as a result of an experience in community that racism, classism, and sexism are social constructs with consequences that impact service-learning students and communities alike in various ways across differing demographics. In order to have an impact and move the work forward, all participants must see these “-isms” as systematic forms of oppression and understand how they interact with and affect society — even if they themselves do not directly experience said form of oppression and perhaps especially if they think, probably inaccurately, that their own lives are not caught up in these systems. Service-learning is not doing its job if all students do not understand how being a member of the dominant race, class, or gender is a source of privilege and learn to question prejudiced beliefs they may have held their entire lives. One way to do this could be through a discussion of the American Dream when preparing to engage in under-resourced areas or with communities of color. In my experience, students who do not understand how these “-isms” affect people, due to not experiencing them themselves, often believe that poor people or people of color should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But, how can people do that if they do not have shoes? In addition, critical reflection about all participants’ subject positions, how they interact with their work and with society at large is a necessity if service-learning is to become a space that moves all who are engaged closer to becoming democratic citizens who operate with values that bend towards justice, equality, and freedom.

Lastly, all participants, but especially those who frame service-learning experiences, need to ensure they are engaging with communities from an asset-based perspective (see Bauer, Kniffin, & Priest in this collection). An asset-based approach stands in contrast to a deficit-based approach that frames communities only in terms of their need for resources and looks instead at community assets, strengths, skills, and passions. Undertaking service-learning with a deficit-based approach actually risks “disrespecting … students who come from these very neighborhoods [and who] do not view their neighborhoods as ‘broken’ [but instead] respect and admire their families and friends, their schools, and places of worship” (Lieberman, 2015, para #8). Approaching “served” communities from an asset-based perspective can help remove barriers to service-learning and civic engagement for students (Lieberman), especially those whose identity is also one traditionally deemed the “served.”

According to Rachel Remen (1996), “We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch…. service [is] the work of the soul… Only service heals.” So maybe, if we do this right, twenty years from now students of color will know how to manage the identities and worlds they straddle in ways that trend more towards healing than toward “two-ness,” confusion and disempowerment. Maybe, if we do this right, there will no longer be a “served” versus “server” dynamic, leaving students of color with nothing to reconcile, allowing for true healing and reconciliation across difference, and finally fulfilling the original spirit of service-learning by which no partners would be defined only as teacher or learner, server or served.


[1]  #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society. Black Lives Matter was created by three queer black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti. #BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation. (Retrieved from:


Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Boyer, E. (1994, March 9). Creating the New American College. The Chronicle of Higher Education: A48

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.

Green, A. E. (2003). Difficult stories: Service-learning, race, class, and whiteness. College Composition and Communication, 55(2), 276-301.

Lewis, A. E. (2003). Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lieberman, D. (2015, February 9). Rethinking how we perceive and approach service learning.  Retrieved July 27, 2015 from

Mitchell, T., Donahue, D., & Young-Law, C. (2012). Service learning as a pedagogy of whiteness. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(4), 612-629. doi:10.1080/10665684.2012.715534

Remen, R. (1996). In the service of life. Retrieved July 28, 2015 from

Zlotkowski, E. (1995). Does service-learning have a future? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2(1), 123-133.

Author Bio

GABRIELLE HICKMON ( is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Industrial and Labor Relations with interests in international education, service-learning, and Black collegiate students’ racial identity development. After graduation, she plans to pursue an MA in International and Comparative Education. Her career aspirations include working for the United Nations, giving Black students curated service-learning opportunities, and teaching college courses on community engagement and Black racial identity development through education.

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